A British painter, illustrator, and ceramist who specialized in delicately painted porcelain vessels, Jane Osborn-Smith died on October 1, 2013 in Old Chatham, New York. Though not her primary material, Osborn-Smith also worked with glass, designing engraved glass vessels and small-scale sculptures for Steuben from 1985 to 1998. Her Steuben design, Shakespeare’s Flowers, was selected by President and Mrs. George H. W. Bush as a gift of state to Queen Elizabeth II, commemorating the Queen’s visit to the United States in 1991. Her limited edition Swan Bowl, designed with her husband, Peter Aldridge, for Steuben in 1985, was an enduringly popular design for the luxury glass manufacturer.
Born on April 6, 1952 in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, UK, Osborn-Smith attended the Hornsey College of Art in London, where she earned a B.A. in 1974. She subsequently trained at London’s Royal College of Art, where she received an M.F.A. in 1977. While at the Royal College, she met the sculptor and designer Peter S. Aldridge (British, b. 1947), whom she married in 1979. Their son, Theo Aldridge, who is also a designer, was born in 1983.
Attracted to objects of intimate scale, Osborn-Smith began her artistic career making jewelry. She abandoned metal for ceramic early on, finding the silence and quiet of working with clay more pleasing. As she was exploring different kinds of clays to work, she found that she was drawn to porcelain, with its unique texture— somewhere between bone and eggshell—and its strength and delicacy. She worked primarily with porcelain for the rest of her career. Her slip-cast and burnished vessels and small sculptures were decorated with laboriously mixed enamel paints applied directly onto the bisque surfaces. Her unglazed multiple-sided vessels provided the perfect vehicle for her increasingly complex symbolic paintings.
Osborn-Smith immigrated to the United States in 1979 to join Aldridge, who had been recruited as design director for Steuben Glass in Corning, New York. Envisioning and executing a new generation of forms for Steuben, he remained at the company until 2002. In addition to her studio practice, Osborn-Smith designed engraved glass vessels and small-scale sculptures for Steuben. Osborn-Smith also designed a studio line of china tableware for Rosenthal, Germany from 1977 to 1990. In 1990, Osborn-Smith illustrated a critically-acclaimed children’s book, Were You a Wild Duck, Where Would You Go?, by George Mendoza (New York: Stewart Tabori & Chang). Her illustrations were described as “mystical,” “diamond-faceted,” and “breathtaking,” paying “exquisite homage to the natural world.” Her choice of subject matter—beautifully described by Caroline Seebohm in a 1985 article for Connoisseur as “intricate, animal-haunted landscapes, Bosch-like in their hallucinatory power but light and airy”—remained the same whether she worked in ceramic, glass, or illustration.
Osborn-Smith developed her subjects from her thoughts, observations, research, and experiences. Some of her small and delicate pots were highly decorative, such as those adorned with her signature design of a sequence of overlapping bird heads. Other vessels were more personal and narrative. She considered herself a story-teller, and she approached her vessels as three-dimensional books that she encoded with subtle references.
Preferring the vessel form because it provided a circular, rather than linear, “canvas,” Osborn-Smith painted her esoteric narratives in a studied manner that encouraged contemplation. Her narrative structure was also not linear, presenting many aspects of an experience, event, or memory at once. As in a dream, the action was not necessarily centered in one place. Events came into focus and faded into others that began new tales, sometimes completed but often fragmenting into thin air.Later in her career, she took up the demanding technique of egg tempera, creating miniature paintings inspired by the art that had always sustained her— Persian miniatures, illuminated manuscripts, the paintings of Giotto, Hieronymus Bosch, Remedios Varo, and Leonora Carrington.
In 2007, Osborn-Smith and Aldridge returned to the UK, living in Caithness, Scotland, where Aldridge was the CEO of North Lands Creative Glass. In 2010, the couple returned to the United States, settling in New York’s Hudson Valley. Osborn-Smith was awarded with the Prix Pro Novioduno, International Triennial of Contemporary Porcelain, Nyon, Switzerland in 2001; a British Crafts Council Fellowship in 1978; and the Tussaud Award for Figurative Art, London in 1977. Her work is found in the collections of the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, the British Crafts Council, and The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York.
—Tina Oldknow Curator of Modern Glass The Corning Museum of Glass